When a woman loses weight in Belize, men will say “Oooh, you’re looking unwell girl!”, whereas a woman who puts on weight will be considered sexier (which, in Kriol, the lingua franca of Belize, will sound something like “Yu de seksy gel”).
We saw some really big bums. Bums to balance pint glasses on.
Bums that shake to the sound of punta rock like you wouldn´t have believed possible. My British behind was, amazingly, and rather disappointingly, simply not up to scratch.
In Punta Gorda, Southern Belize, where the inhabitants are so chilled they can’t even be bothered to call their home anything more than ‘P.G’, we were fortunate enough to experience an insider’s view of the city and the music that makes the bums wiggle so frenetically.
Our hosts, a Scottish expat and her Belizian husband, opened their doors to the world of Garifuna culture and the hypnotic beats of punta and its electrified modern day equivalent, punta rock while we stayed at Warasa Garifuna Drum School.
Ronald Raymond McDonald (no, really – the fast food chain is non existent in Belize, hence the parents’ lack of concern at choosing such a name), Garifuna drummer extraordinaire, taught us how to play a simple punta beat on the Segunda, or bass drum, used to keep the steady beat of the music, whilst he pummeled away at the Primera drum, a smaller, higher pitched instrument, played faster (and with far more skill) over the top. It’s harder than it looks, and as soon as my beat was steady enough to have accompaniment, it was all I could do to not start slapping the drum to the same rapid beat of my tutor. The class was great fun though, and Ray really is an amazing drummer and very patient teacher.
Punta is traditionally a social dance, often performed at wakes, weddings and other special occasions. Incidentally, Garifuna wakes aren’t the sombre affair we’re accustomed to in Western culture, but a reason to celebrate the passing of the person’s soul from the body into the external world.
A wake not only involves close friends and family, but everyone from the town, who flock to the occasion to dance, sing and celebrate (and, according to some, to eat free food, which must be provided for such an affair). The call and response nature of the music encourages participation, and sees the man and woman taking it in turns to outdo each other on the dancefloor, using an amusing mixture of bird-like mating moves.
The idea, as we soon learnt, albeit badly, is to wiggle your bum as quickly as possible from the knees, keeping the torso still. Essentially this means putting beginners through the embarrassing rigmarole of shaking their tush until they’re a sweaty, dizzy mess, and become a laughing stock with the locals. I was dismissed for “concentrating TOO hard” and my companion, whilst far better than I, only managed to wiggle her bum when simultaneously moving round and round in circles with her feet, restricting progress somewhat.
Whilst traditional punta still exists and even thrives, a modern, electronic version, called Punta Rock, is commonplace and popular with young people. I can’t confess to loving the addition of the keyboard, however, which more often than not sounds like demo number five (or six, or seven…) on an old Casio.
The music is very upbeat and positive sounding, although the lyrics, in the Garifuna language, are usually far less positive, and tend to speak about misfortune, death, sexual politics and disaster. Garinagu (plural of Garifuna), or Black Caribs, are descendents of Carib Indians and Black Africans who lived on the island of St. Vincent. In the early seventeenth century, two Spanish ships carrying Black African slaves were shipwrecked off the island, where survivors settled amongst the Carib Indians. After a British invasion the following century, the Garinagu were exiled to Roatan, an island off the north coast of Honduras, and from there they spread to nearby Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The language itself exists mostly in spoken format, in songs, for example, rather than in written script. Perhaps it´s a result of this turbulent past that Garifuna songs have such a morbid content; they´re certainly always about what has happened in the composer´s life, never fictional tales.
One of the most famous Garifuna musicians is Andy Palacio, who is committed to preserving the language and culture. Have a listen here: Andy Palacio – Watina
Sadly, many young people in Belize today are embarrassed of their roots, so whilst Kriol and English usage grows stronger, Garifuna culture and language is dying out. Fortunately, The National Garifuna Council of Belize, formed in 1981, has now been pronounced a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and works to promote and preserve the culture through food, music, language and dance.
I´ll shake my booty to that.